HUSON – Shane Hughes stood at the work table, a spokeshave in his hands, a curved piece of walnut clamped in front of him.
In the shop below his living quarters, he pressed the tool along the walnut, and shavings piled at his feet like curls of chocolate. Eventually, the woodworker would join the pieces into a smooth, balanced chair, a complementary blend of walnut and maple.
“I try to make pieces that are just as much art as furniture, everyday practical furniture,” said Hughes, 30. “I’m trying to get people to see that fine furniture is more than just furniture.”
Once upon a time, the furniture maker wanted to grow up to be a game warden, but chemistry wasn’t his forte, and those days are long gone. Now, he will spend a month or more on a single chair, one door, a unique piece of beauty unlike any other he will ever make.
Hughes, who landed in Missoula as a 9-year-old, started working in a local cabinet shop at the age of 17. He reads books about the craft, but he never went to school for the trade.
“I just learned by doing, trial and error,” he said.
In the beginning, he struggled with the joinery and the finishing, but his peers in the industry saw a spark. They encouraged him to pursue the profession, and Hughes felt natural to be at work at the craft.
“I always enjoyed building things, and the more I stuck with it, the more I realized I loved it, I wanted to make a career out of it,” Hughes said.
In the beginning, he worked in Missoula for Abbott Norris and Jon Roske on high-end cabinetry, and in 2010 he broke out on his own. Hughes built his own home in Huson with a wood shop on the ground floor, and last year he took his work on the road.
The journeys paid off: He won three awards for his creations.
In March, a walnut door inlaid with a strip of riverstones earned an Award of Excellence at the Great Western Living and Design Exhibition in Great Falls. In September, a maple burl rocker pulled a runner-up for Best in Show, and the same piece won the Exhibitors’ Choice at the Cody High Style in Wyoming, the latter a nod from his fellow artists.
The maple rocker went for $6,800, but Hughes might not have sold it if he didn’t have a mortgage to pay.
“It’s always hard for me to get rid of a piece that I really enjoy,” Hughes said.
Truth be told, he enjoys them all.
To design a piece, Hughes first sketches at his drafting table, one he built himself. From the second-story window facing the table, he can see horses in the neighboring pasture, and in the distance, he can see the mountains over the Six Mile Valley.
“It should be getting green in the next couple weeks,” Hughes said.
He does 90 percent of the work in the tidy shop below his home. The chisels are lined up by size, the saw blades assembled just so, the slabs of walnut, mahogany, cherry and maple stand ready to be shaped into a new existence.
On the job, Hughes carves to the crooning of Hank Williams, or he turns up the outlaw country tunes. He welcomes one interruption, the ring of the telephone, because calls mean clients, and most of his business is through word of mouth.
One prize he will make in the next year is a door for the renowned C.M. Russell Museum auction in Great Falls. Hughes is making the piece at the invitation of the museum, and believes he is the first furniture maker invited to do so.
Eventually, Hughes wants to hire a couple people to help him, maybe with things like sanding. The handiwork requires precision, and Hughes, a perfectionist, won’t have an easy time placing the responsibility in another set of hands.
Most days, he works until 8 p.m., and in one year, he will complete six to 12 pieces. When the sun dapples the pine on the trails near his home, he rests.
“When the weather is nice, I take weekends off,” Hughes said.
He finds inspiration right outside his front door. The trees and branches he sees in the woods show up as details on his doors, cabinets and chairs.
He hikes Ch-paa-qn Peak two or three times a year, and he heads onto other trails with his dogs, Abby and Hank, collecting antlers as he goes. The antlers adorn his gate, and their bleached gray offsets the bowls of mottled elm and other woods atop his kitchen cupboards.
He models his work after many artists, including the late Sam Maloof, a furniture maker in California who built rockers used by presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Hughes is drawn to the sculpted, free-flowing lines of his craftsmanship.
He likes walnut for the grain, and he’s taken by sapele, an African wood with an iridescent undertone, and he likes people to be able to see the way a piece is put together.
“I like to keep the joinery as exposed as possible. I think it’s neat,” Hughes said.
He orders raw material from sustainable harvests around the world, and he has sent finished pieces as far away as Martha’s Vineyard. He talks frequently with clients as he develops their orders, and he sends them pictures of pieces in different stages.
In his own home, the dogs learned quickly to stay off the furniture, stay off the cabinets, but Hughes isn’t overly protective. If a piece collects nicks and scratches, he’ll refinish it as needed, but he isn’t in a hurry.
“The reality is, it’s furniture. It’s meant to be used. It should be used,” Hughes said.
He considers the work fun, albeit with a couple exceptions. He takes care of shop maintenance himself, performing the tasks he didn’t realize came with the job at first, such as clearing out the dust collector.
He still spends some sleepless nights confronting a design challenge, figuring out a way to tweak a piece to make it better, sketching and sketching to perfection. One day, he might organize all those drawings, but for now, he’s content to create.
As Hughes sees it, the most difficult piece of furniture to master is the rocking chair. The ones he builds are made of 13 different parts, and he keeps the prototype in his living room.
Last week on a tour of his shop and home, he sat for a spell in the rocker. Yes, he was comfortable, comfortable without a doubt.